People of Poultry: Poultry Evangelist Continues to Inspire as Retirement Approaches

Frank Robinson’s reputation as a teacher is legendary. As his retirement approaches, it is an honour to share some of the creative ways that he has informed, encouraged, and inspired students, both within and far beyond the walls of the University of Alberta. It is impossible to cover the research, publications, awards, and outstanding accomplishments of Dr. Robinson in a single article. Read on for just a sampling of the ground-breaking philosophies and educational innovations by this remarkable ‘poultry evangelist.’

Frank Robinson, Ph.D. Professor, Poultry Production and Physiology

Special Adviser to the Dean (ALES), University of Alberta 

Editor, NACTA Journal


Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Frank was introduced to the world of poultry in grade five when he acquired 25 Light Sussex hens and started a small egg business. The passion for poultry was ignited and he entered the University of Saskatchewan to pursue a B.Sc. in Agriculture, followed by an M.Sc. in Poultry Science (Virginia Tech) and a Ph.D. in Animal Reproduction (University of Guelph). He applied for a teaching position at the U of A and never looked back. That was 36 years ago and the magic begins with Animal Science 101. 

University of Alberta: AN SCI 101 Principles of Animal Agriculture

Animal Science 101 is an important foundational course where university students often get their first taste of agriculture. Robinson has been teaching the course since 1995 (46 times) and has utilized the opportunity to inspire students to fundamentally understand and experience the life of a farmer.   

“A lot of the students have zero or very little experience with agriculture,” said Frank. “Everybody has something to learn.”

In AN SCI 101, he has tried to make agriculture engaging and welcoming, creating an environment that inspires confidence, where backgrounds are accommodated, and students feel there is a place for them. 

“What I tried to do is have students speak the language of agriculture,” he explained. “If they are in the agricultural community, they can carry on a conversation and know what’s going on.”

In the past, you could take an animal science course and have no exposure to real life on farms. Robinson saw a need and initiated programs that filled that gap and were also engaging and fun.

One example of this is The Game of Farm Life, a project designed by Robinson which has become an integral part of the course. In addition to touring beef, poultry and dairy operations, students build their own virtual farm with a $10 million start-up budget. Students showcase their farms in a trade show format, culminating in an auction event. Through Robinson’s guidance, students take complete ownership of their farms and, if connected with a farmer as mentor, build relationships that carry over into the real world. Robinson also builds community within his class. 

“The trick with students is having them all-in on the project and all-in on their education,” said Robinson. “Often, we just give them the information and say, have a nice day, but a lot of the teaching style now is a two-way street. The students form a kind of community with you as the instructor.”   

The Game of Farm Life was a huge success until COVID-19 arrived in 2020 and farm tours were out of the question. 

Capitalizing on Covid

Robinson asked himself ‘what can we do better in times of COVID-19 that we couldn’t do before?’ The answer was a virtual version of the course that allowed multiple interactions between students and poultry professionals. 

“In 2021, I had 48 farmers talk to my class in a virtual format, and that was probably the best teaching I have ever done,” said Robinson. “I was basically Oprah between students and farmers.”

Frank used his network to find yak, dairy, poultry, and bison producers. The challenge was managing 140 students and 48 farmers in an eight-week program as well as doing an online survey every week with students. The students were required to produce five power point slides weekly about their farm, which demanded detailed thought about fundamental elements such as feed and breeding stock. 

“It was pretty intense,” said Frank. “But the satisfaction surveys showed that the students felt they were in a very strong learning community, they felt supported, and the quality of their slides was excellent. That’s what I wanted to do during the time of COVID-19.”

Mini-Internship Program and Work-Integrated Learning

The Mini-Internship program grew from Robinson seeing multiple students coming through Animal Science with great marks but no practical experience. With no experience, they were not as employable and lacked the confidence to look for jobs.

“Students couldn’t get experience because they had no experience,” said Robinson. “If you can give them an opportunity to actually live agriculture through experiences or immersion in the industry, you have just opened doors that may not have been open before.”

The seeds of the Mini-Internship program began as an effort to partner students with farmers, asking them if they would take inexperienced students on farm for three days. The program was highly successful, reaching a peak of over 100 students placed on farms by 2020. 

“We were just getting going, and then COVID-19 hit,” remembered Frank. It seemed that it would not be possible to continue the internships with pandemic restrictions. And then the idea of a virtual tour was hatched.

For three semesters, Robinson had 32 farmers and industry people come on video and talk about their careers. There were vets and geneticists and people representing all aspects of the field. In 2022, the class range expanded, and all 32 speakers were international or from parts of Canada beyond Alberta.

“I know they didn’t get to experience the sights and smells and sounds of the farm, but I’m not disappointed because there was great engagement with farmers,” said Robinson.

A new program is in the works where Frank will play the role of matchmaker between farmers and students. Farmers can indicate what volunteers they can need and students will be matched to the farmer. The goal is to involve not just animal science but also plant, environmental and food science into the work-integrated learning program. 

“We’ve had some students that have really stayed in contact with the farmers after the program ends, they go back and help them with the calving and things like that,” said Robinson. “Some of our farmers are fantastic teachers.”

It’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for students to experience labour and learning on the farm. Read more about this and other experiential learning innovations by Frank Robinson here.

Edmonton Lifelong Learner Association (ELLA)

Frank has been teaching Behind the Barn Door for the ELLA program for five years, in-person and virtually. ELLA is a non-profit organization, partnered with the U of A and dedicated to lifelong learning. The classes allow seniors to experience the world of agriculture through the magical eyes of Frank. 

“We laugh our faces off in some of the classes,” said Frank. “We do a lot of myth-busting and every day we have three unfamiliar words that we talk about and learn. I also show them pictures of agricultural implements and they have one day to guess what it is and make a presentation. It’s amazing how much time they put into the assignment.”

Frank invites farmers in to talk to the class with great success, again creating bridges between real life farming and interested urban dwellers.

“What these people really like is to see the passion of farming and have some quality assurance of where their food comes from.”

U of A Poultry Small Flock Course

Once an in-person Small Flock Workshop affiliated with the U of A Heritage Chicken Program and Peavey Mart for backyard chicken keepers, the workshop evolved into the virtual U of A Small Flock Poultry Short Course during COVID-19. It is now a two-evening, comprehensive course with a global reach. Robinson designed the course and currently teaches it with Dr. Teryn Girard, DVM and Kerry Nadeau, U of A Poultry Unit Manager. Participants learn everything from building a coop and choosing the right breed to anatomy, egg laying and disease prevention. 

“I like the small flock course because I believe there is room in agriculture for both small flock producers and commercial agriculture,” said Robinson. “They have very different objectives and very different clientele, but both are important.”

The recent Avian Influenza outbreak has emphasized the critical importance of biosecurity on all farms, no matter the size.  Robinson talks about respect for commercial agriculture in the courses, where a farmer with a massive investment can be critically affected by a small flock farm.

“My main incentive is to have people just do things better, because so many people are well-intentioned but misinformed,” said Robinson.

U of A Botanical Gardens

Another course that Robinson has recently developed takes place at the U of A Botanical Gardens, a 97 hectare botanical garden located 15 minutes southwest of Edmonton. The course, titled Being a Chicken in 2022, is taught from the point of view of a chicken, discussing current issues and life in today’s world. Robinson has had a lot of fun delivering the course, again reaching a new and diverse audience.

“It’s poultry evangelism,” he said. “I try to convert them one by one. I’ll keep doing this as long as I have a pulse.” 

Green Certificate Program (GCP)

Robinson wrote the manual for the Poultry Unit of the Green Certificate Program; a hands-on government of Alberta program where high school students can get credits based on a variety of agricultural units. In 2021, Tyson Lancaster, a teacher in Dewberry, AB, decided that he wanted his grade 11 class to do the Poultry Unit with laying hens and Robinson got involved. 

“It was an amazing experience,” recalled Frank. 

Frank set up an advisory committee and Lancaster, who had minimal poultry experience, put together materials to build a coop out of an existing shed. Susan Schafers of STS farms donated the birds. Robinson taught the class online every morning for months and went out to Dewberry in-person on three occasions. The entire class achieved great marks, earning high school credits and the ability to go out and get a job with their hands-on poultry experience. 

“They did very well in the course and the teacher was absolutely amazing,” said Frank. “He’s planning to do it again this year with a new class.”  To learn more about the Dewberry GC project, click here.

Whitehorse Correctional Centre

A Corrections Canada employee recently approached Robinson to float the idea of a poultry course for prison inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. Frank was excited about the idea and offered to set up the course and create modules, based on discussions with the prison staff about their facilities and objectives. Yet another opportunity to educate, inspire and elevate a unique community.

“These people are incarcerated for up to a year for petty crime and they will be able to learn something while they are in prison,” said Frank. “It’s a tangible, hands-on learning opportunity, and they can apply those skills immediately to farm work.”

Retirement Plans and Final thoughts 

Although Robinson is officially retiring, he will still be fulfilling some administrative duties and continuing with the Mini Internship program for another three years. In his non-poultry life, he is a highly skilled stained-glass artist, who makes stunning window creations and teaches classes in the art form. When asked if he plans to pursue this further in retirement, he is humble. 

“I make a lot of chicken windows,” laughed Frank. “I’ve filled the windows of my home and farm and now I give it away or donate it to charities to auction off.” 

He’s not yet able to raise his own chickens, he won’t be out at his farm often enough at this point.

“I will continue to live vicariously through others who have chickens,” he smiled. “But I wouldn’t mind some cows!”

When asked to share some final thoughts for poultry colleagues and students, he mused about remaining open to new ways of teaching and learning.

Always be aware of different ways of doing things,” said Frank. “For example, if you had told me two years ago that I would be teaching online and liking it, I would have said that’s crazy talk! But I have really enjoyed it.”

“I did miss meeting students in-person though,” he continued. “Even my ninety-year-old students are amazing!”

Despite retirement, it is unlikely that this remarkable and innovative educator will ever stop teaching. The joy he expresses when talking about his students is as infectious as his excitement over new and upcoming projects. He has discovered a way to transform lives through the lens of the humble chicken. 

As Frank has stated, “I will keep doing this as long as I have a pulse.”

Poultry evangelist for life and the world is grateful.

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